As Marty McCullough scanned a table filled with makeshift toilets and water filtration systems, she couldn’t help but wish her neighbors were by her side.
McCullough was one of the dozens of people who attended an emergency preparedness town hall in Gearhart on Saturday. The event, organized by the Community Emergency Response Team at the fire hall, featured a panel of speakers who addressed topics like emergency communications, go-bags, sanitation in a crisis and other tools.
It was the first time McCullough, who has owned a home in Gearhart for five years, had ever attended an emergency preparedness event. But after some troublesome conversations with her neighbors, she felt compelled not only to come to prepare herself, but to convince her neighborhood to do the same.
“A lot of our neighbors are older, and they’re simply not worried about (a tsunami),” she said. “I guess I just thought to myself, ‘Someone has to worry about this.’ There’s something I can do to help them be aware of what they need to do.”
Reaching out to people like McCullough and her neighbors through town halls is part of Gearhart’s growing effort to bolster what is considered to be the beach town’s No. 1 resource in a tsunami: residents.
With less than 1,000 full-time residents, limited staffing and very little land out of the inundation zone, the city’s geography and demography has brought focusing on individual preparedness to the forefront as the first line of defense for a major disaster.
“Like most municipalities, we are underfunded and understaffed to take on the great burden of preparing our community. So we really do need the citizens to take control of preparedness for themselves,” said City Councilor Dan Jesse, an emergency preparedness advocate.
Gearhart has plenty to do on its own.
In 2019, the city is hoping voters support a bond to move an aging fire station out of the inundation zone. Caches of medical supplies have been stashed in a few private residences around town. As of this month, the city secured a $15,000 grant from the state Department of Land Conservation and Development to be used to evaluate tsunami hazards as well as give guidance on how to craft land use measures to reduce the city’s risk.
But many of these projects are just in the beginning stages, making individual preparedness even more critical.
“If it happened today, we would have to rely on our neighbors,” Jesse said.
One of the biggest challenges Gearhart faces is unfortunate geography.
A study done in 2013 by the Department of Geology and Mineral Industries revealed the town has no ground high enough to guarantee safety in the largest of tsunamis. The Neacoxie River, which runs along the west side of U.S. Highway 101, will almost certainly flood, making it impossible for residents to evacuate to the east.
“If you go to many other cities, they have ground everyone knows is high enough to evacuate to, and we don’t have that,” Jesse said. “So for us it’s about trying to figure out our best approach.”
These factors lead to a confusing message that is hard to communicate: When a tsunami hits, run toward the ocean and head north, where the dunes reach the highest elevations in town between 50 and 70 feet. When common wisdom tells people to run for the hills, the job to educate people about how to evacuate becomes even more important.
“It’s definitely counterintuitive,” said City Councilor Paulina Cockrum, who volunteers with the Community Emergency Response Team.
But engaging the town in emergency preparedness has been an uphill battle. Almost 60 percent of homes in Gearhart are unoccupied — second homes with owners who may or may not be involved with community efforts. The fact the town’s population trends older can make selling preparedness a challenge, as well.
“We have a population that’s on the older side,” Jesse said. “If you’re 50 or older, the chance of the event happening in your lifetime is pretty small. But if you are a 20-year-old or 30-year-old, the chance of this happening in your lifetime is much greater.”
Appealing a thousand ways
But there is reason to be hopeful. As Cockrum and Jesse spoke about the difficulty of getting people interested in emergency preparedness, every seat filled up on the fire station floor — a turnout noticeably higher than in previous years.
While a full house at a town hall is a good start, Cockrum said one of the troubles CERT faces is not having a clear sense of how prepared residents are after the town hall clears out.
“I don’t think we have a good feel for the cultural aspects (of preparedness). We have not done the work to find out how prepared all the residents are. What is their knowledge?” she said. “That’s part of what we’re trying to discover with this outreach.”
One way Cockrum hopes to do this is by establishing CERT representatives in each neighborhood to lead preparedness efforts in less-than-enthusiastic places like McCullough’s.
More than anything, preparedness is an exercise in persistence, CERT member Pat Wollner said.
“There’s a million reasons not to do something. I’m too young to plan. I’m too old to plan. You have to chip away at the reluctance,” Wollner said. “You have to appeal to them in a thousand different ways to make preparing worthwhile.”